By Anne Tyler
Knopf, February 2015, 368 pages
Genre: Domestic fiction
Collier County Public Library: Yes
“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world, but a world lives in you.” – Frederick Buechner
On Bouton Road in Baltimore, Maryland, there is a house situated on a gentle slope, surrounded by tulip poplars, accessed by a flagstone walkway. The neighbors call it the “porch house” because of its strikingly luxurious deep, varnished wood porch. The Whitshank family has been part of this house since the foundation was laid. Junior Whitshank built it, not for himself, but for the wealthy Mr. Brill. Junior coveted this house from the time he laid eyes on the blueprints and the site. After a series of unsettling “incidents,” the Brills give up the house and Junior was able to move his small family into his dream home, their ticket to a better life.
Ms. Tyler is well known for writing absorbing tales of American families. She does not disappoint in A Spool of Blue Thread. Her myriad fans will rejoice and likely many new followers will embrace this captivating story. Tyler’s highly descriptive writing style gives these characters a vitality, complexity and humanness that draws the reader in. These people, their situations and surroundings are so real it almost seems as if one is eavesdropping and spying on a genuine family. The Whitshanks are not rock stars – their lives are ordinary and made up of small disappointments and smaller victories. That ordinariness is not boring, thanks to the master storytelling of the author.
We are introduced to Red and Abby and their four children. First son Denny has always been difficult, to the point of actually manipulating the family with his outbursts and sullen withdrawals and absences. Daughters Amanda and Jeannie are competent, confident people as is youngest son Stem. They have to learn to be independent because their parents’ time was wrapped up in Denny. We learn the family lore as Red repeats the stories of his childhood and Abby shares her conversations with Red’s mother, Linnie Mae. When the grandchildren come along, another phase of Red and Abby’s lives begins, another generation inhabits the house, albeit only for visits.
By the time, Red and Abby are in their early 70s, Red still goes to work at his construction company everyday and Abby is still active but starting to forget some things. About one-quarter of the way into the book, things start topercolate. We discover more back story on youngest son Stem, or Douglas, which adds a new dimension to the family history. About this time, Abby is discovered wandering the neighborhood in her nightgown, so “something” must be done. Stem and his wife Nora decide to move into the Bouton Road house to assist Red and Abby. They bring along their three active small boys. As the author notes, “Well, certainly Amanda couldn’t have done it. She and Hugh and their teenage daughter led such busy lives that their corgi had to go to doggie day care every morning.” Then Denny shows up.
After the unexpected death of a character, the author takes the reader back to the 1950s when Abby fell in love with Red. We learn more about Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae, as well as his older sister Merrick whose impending marriage to the scion of a wealthy local family is the backdrop to Red and Abby’s consolidation. It layers the context of Abby and Red’s parenting style as we learn more about their own parents. Abby is horrified to learn from Linnie Mae how she and Junior first met. Abby, and most of the world thought of Linnie Mae as a quiet, backwoods woman who lived to serve her husband and children. But we learn that in fact, Linnie Mae was the personification of formidable.
Following the retreat back to the union/love stories of the first and second Whitshank generations, Tyler brings us back to wrap up Red and Abby’s story. Just as the story began with their dismay over 19-year-old Denny’s behavior, it ends with Denny returning to his home in New Jersey, revealing a Denny determined to make better choices and be a more dependable person.
Some readers may find the format of the book cumbersome. Many prefer chronological storytelling. I think, however, that Tyler’s structure is closer to reality in that most of us discover these types of family stories piecemeal, a little here, a little there, and usually not until we dig for them. Frankly, if we had learned Linnie Mae’s story first, it would not have been as shocking. Seeing through her family’s eyes, then reading the actual events of her life was much more intriguing.
Rating: 4.25/5.0. Available everywhere.
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher as well as various occupations in the health care field. She shares a hometown with Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, walking on the beach, reading, movies and writing, are among her pursuits outside of work. She is self employed and works from her Naples home.